Published in 2024 Louisiana Super Lawyers magazine
By Nancy Henderson on December 13, 2023
During a discussion of a violent, gang-related case with prosecutors, rookie criminal defense attorney Sara Johnson pored over the gruesome crime scene photos. “They really demonstrated how destructive high-powered rifles and certain kinds of ammunition can be to the human body,” she says. But she never missed a beat in the conversation. “I sort of heard through the grapevine afterward that they were like, ‘Sara didn’t even blink. She wasn’t fazed,’” she recalls.
Those steely nerves were developed early, during a high school summer internship that saw her performing autopsies with the local medical examiner. The experience had a profound impact on her, including, she says, “my coming to understand how the body is a shell that a person inhabits, not the person him- or herself.”
Johnson is studious but spirited; focused but physically restless. “I don’t sit still for very long,” she says. And while she’s aware of how others might perceive her, she’s always focused on the task at hand. “It is not my job [in court] to make friends. It is my job to represent my client. I’m sure you would talk to some people who would say I’m quite pleasant. I’m sure you would talk to other people that would say I’m incredibly difficult.”
Her white-collar cases, in particular, have earned her a reputation as one of the state’s criminal defense heavyweights. “You have to have an incredible amount of patience and attention. I do not get bored,” says Johnson, 42. “I have no problem spending days, weeks, months researching an issue or reading documents and putting eyes on everything. You’ve got to keep digging and you can’t rely on what anybody else is telling you about how things went down. If that means reading 20,000 emails, that means reading 20,000 emails.”
Ethan Balogh, a San Francisco trial attorney, worked as Johnson’s co-counsel in the successful defense of former First NBC Bank of New Orleans loan officer Fred Beebe in a sweeping fraud case following the bank’s failure in 2017; it led to nearly $1 billion in FDIC losses. The list of skills Balogh attributes to Johnson includes: “A breadth of knowledge in criminal law and her ability to dissect a case, the clarity of her writing, her confidence and resulting ability to stand up to federal and state prosecutors, her tirelessness as an advocate, and her commitment to her clients.”
He adds: “She has a wonderful sense of humor and kept the defense table chuckling with small jokes and observations throughout the trial proceedings. But in any courtroom, she comes across as who she is: a hard-as-nails advocate who knows her stuff and is ready for the proceedings.”
“I’m an incredible introvert, but I love talking to a captive audience in a courtroom,” Johnson says. “Just please don’t send me to a cocktail party.”
Growing up in Amherst, New York, a suburb of Buffalo, Johnson was determined, independent and an avid reader who carried a book almost everywhere she went. She quickly learned how to entertain herself, as only children often do.
In high school, spellbound by the O.J. Simpson trial, she participated in a weekly Amherst Youth Court arranged by the local police department and run by student judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys who processed cases involving theft—such as if “somebody stole a scrunchie from Claire’s at the mall”—trespassing and vandalism. “The idea behind it was that it was perhaps more intimidating or more embarrassing to have to appear in front of your peers than a bunch of adults,” she says. With the exception of one session in which she acted as judge—she didn’t like it—she always played the role of defender.
Law came naturally to her, but by that time, she was already focused on medicine. When her pre-med studies fizzled out—a fraud class intrigued her so much she bowed out of chemistry lab—she set her sights on Tulane Law School, which offered a solid international law program. Surprisingly, she hated her first-year criminal law class.
The opposite was true of her externship with Judge Helen Ginger Berrigan, who showed compassion to every defendant who appeared before her. While working an assignment for Judge Berrigan—a 2254 federal petition, a last-ditch appeal for someone serving a state court sentence—it became clear from the handwritten request that the man serving a court sentence was barely literate. Appalled, Johnson commented to the judge’s secretary, “This man can’t read or write?”
Johnson then realized her privilege. “It goes to show how incredibly naïve and sheltered I was,” she says. “It made clear to me the relationship between a dysfunctional public education system, crime, and the pipeline to prison.”
It only motivated her further to pursue criminal defense, and she couldn’t wait to get into a courtroom. After a semester clerking at a federal public defender’s office, Johnson wanted to round out her experience by interning with a prosecutor’s office. Excited at the prospect of being in court—“I heard they let interns try misdemeanor cases,” she recalls—she hoped the experience would help her see cases from all sides.
But it wasn’t meant to be. After Hurricane Katrina, judges assigned the law clinic students to indigent defendants, and Johnson had already committed to the Criminal Litigation Clinic for her 3L year. Johnson’s clinic professor alerted the office to the conflict and, instead, convinced Johnson to work at the clinic that summer.
There she worked to secure the release of dozens of defendants held far beyond their maximum sentences in the wake of the storm. Lost in the system, most had been jailed for months. Some had never even been to court. Each morning, she checked the Louisiana Department of Corrections’ faxed list-of-the-day, and began triaging cases. “I would go visit them, try to locate their family, try to get them in touch with their family, and then get them released,” she says. “We went through those efforts because we didn’t want them just released out into post-Katrina New Orleans where their family wasn’t there. Their home was probably gone, and they would just get re-arrested.
“That was just about the most rewarding [experience] I could have asked for.”
It was an eye-opener, too. At one prison, Johnson attempted to talk to an inmate who was stuck in the system. “She was just shut down. She didn’t want to talk to me. She didn’t trust me. At the time, I wasn’t fully attuned to recognize things like mental health problems and trauma that would explain why somebody would behave like this.”
Johnson left the prison with nothing more than a tattered envelope bearing the return address of an apartment complex in Houston where a family member supposedly lived. Sitting down with a phone book, she methodically dialed each unit until she found a neighbor willing to help. Two days later, the woman’s son called, paving the way for Johnson to get her out of prison. “I’ll never forget this: She was a different person the second time I saw her,” she says. “I walked into the room and her whole face lit up. She was like, ‘You came back.’
“They’re used to being let down by people. They’re not used to having somebody really follow through.”
After graduating from law school in 2007, Johnson spent three years at Schonekas, Evans, McGoey & McEachin, handling a wide variety of criminal, civil and administrative matters. In 2011, Johnson and her mentor Herbert Larson started their own practice.
In an early case, a 65-year-old kindergarten teacher charged with vehicular homicide was accused of “robotripping” on cough syrup at the time of the accident. Unconvinced that her client had abused any substances, and believing the charges were racially motivated, Johnson asked a scientist friend to explain the intricacies of enzyme metabolism. “It turns out that my client had a gene deletion on the gene that was responsible for producing the enzyme that metabolized dextromethorphan. … She had tremendous levels of it running around in her system because her body couldn’t metabolize it.”
The driver was convicted of a lesser charge, but the fact that she did time at all still bothers Johnson. It also underlined the importance of pushing even harder when the facts of a case don’t make sense. “I can be a little dogged,” she says. “You just pull a thread and you keep pulling. You keep pulling, you keep pulling, you keep pulling.”
One of her most prominent cases since she went solo in 2016 wrapped up in early 2023. After she was hired by Beebe, the former senior vice president at First NBC Bank, to advise him while he cooperated with the FBI and FDIC in the massive fraud charges against the bank’s former president and others, Johnson received emails stating that he was not a target of the investigation. He was expected to testify as a witness for the government.
“So you can imagine the shock that I felt when I was indicted,” Beebe says of the seven counts of fraud levied at him in January 2021 for allegedly concealing the truth about the inability of a borrower to repay their loans. “Sara’s advice to my wife and I was that we needed to live our lives. She continued to say, ‘We got this. You did nothing wrong. We’ll have our day in court.’”
Day after day during the five-week trial—the longest of Johnson’s career—Beebe watched her do battle in court. “Sara is the epitome of a strong legal mind,” he says. “She is laser-focused, organized and does her homework. She knew every loan document, every customer involved in this matter and many of the employees. She knew the bank’s structure, the roles and responsibilities of the organization, the authority of those involved. She learned the terminology. She got into the weeds and she left no stone unturned.”
Says Johnson: “I found that stuff to be fascinating. I was always trying to talk to laypeople about it to find the right ways to relay the information, so I remember family members saying things like, ‘Huh?’ or ‘This sounds so boring,’” she adds with a laugh.
But it worked. She was able to successfully relay loan document information to the jury—a key moment in the trial.
“I found that the government made the same mistake that the chief credit officer and other higher-ups did: They just read the cover page but never bothered to read the rest of the package,” Johnson says. “I read the complete package for all of the loans charged and the information showed—without question—that the loan shouldn’t have been approved. And if that’s apparent to me, someone with no banking experience, it should have been apparent to anyone in the bank. My client didn’t hide anything. It was all there in the loan package.”
The trial ended with a complete acquittal. “I don’t want to say I’ve never had so much fun in my life,” she says. “But it was a 10. Every day, I couldn’t believe how lucky I am that I get to do this for a living.”
“She was truly living this with us,” says Beebe. “While my wife and I have no knowledge of the legal workings, she educated us and led us through the process. I owe my life to Sara.”
Johnson’s way of giving back is to “help young lawyers become smart, conscientious defense attorneys and prosecutors” as an adjunct professor of Advanced Criminal Practice at Tulane. In class, she mixes things up with mock trials inspired by newsworthy cases like those of popular rappers or Tiger King subject Joe Exotic.
She’s also an animal lover who rescued “bearded beagles” Fred and Lamont, a father and son named for characters in Sanford and Son, who frequently accompany her to the office. As evidenced by the ribbons and photos of her Irish sport horse, JJ Durro, which line the wall behind her desk, she is also a competitive, and passionate, showjumper. “When I’m not working, I try to spend as much time around animals as I can,” she says. “I think animals encourage us to be better humans.”
More than one parallel exists between riding horses and practicing law, she adds: “Lessons about focus, about trying to take a deep breath, about constantly being aware of what’s going on underneath you and having to make real-time decisions about how to react.”
Fear has no place in either arena. “Emotions are useless on a horse, and sometimes I need to remind myself of that in my practice. Getting upset is not going to help the situation,” Johnson says. You can’t force them to jump, “the same way that I can’t force a judge to do something. I have to find a way that should make him want to do this.”
Plus, she jokes, courtroom work is easier than equestrian competition in one specific way: “No matter what happens in a case, there is almost a zero percent chance that I will break an arm or a neck at the podium.”
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